Category Archives: restaurant etiquette

Dipping into the finger bowl

Once upon a time finger bowls were routinely presented with the check in expensive restaurants. To the average American, who probably never went to this type of restaurant, they were a great source of humor. Jokes typically involved an unsophisticated restaurant patron drinking water from the bowl or eating the lemon slices floating in it. The funny stories demonstrated the joy Americans take in spearing pretentiousness, a quality which finger bowls epitomized to many.

Like salad forks and menus in French, using finger bowls was an esoteric social custom that was certain to befuddle the average person. How many fingers do you put into the bowl at once? What do you do after you get your fingers wet? Must you use it at all?*

These questions would soon fade from American culture because the finger bowl was about to run afoul of history in the World War I era.

Yet in the decade before finger bowls met their downfall, the number of restaurants providing them actually increased. Live music and finger bowls were two amenities put forward as competitive attractions over places that didn’t have them. Some observers believed that because so many restaurants adopted finger bowls, it deprived them of the eliteness they once enjoyed and that this was a factor in their downfall.

Further warning signs of the finger bowl’s decline in status surfaced as early as 1908 when a veteran waiter confessed to a reporter that wise patrons should demand to witness their waiter filling the bowl. Otherwise, he warned, it was likely they’d get one with wastewater from a previous user fermenting in it.

For reasons that are still mysterious to me, 1913 was a turning point in the fortunes of the finger bowl. The Buffalo NY health department launched an attack on brass bowls, which they claimed were in use in over half of the city’s restaurants. Glass bowls could be sanitized with boiling water but brass, said the health commissioner, could not. Omaha hotelier Rome Miller declared that modern guests were more germ conscious than ever before and wanted everything – tea, coffee cream, breakfast cereal – individually packaged. For guests desiring to wash their fingertips after dining, he recommended silver holders with disposable paper inserts.

Whether due to the influence of Rome Miller or not, the city of Omaha totally outlawed reusable finger bowls in 1915. The ordinance did make one exception – for finger bowls “made from paper or other substance which shall be delivered after being once used and not used or offered for use a second time.” The crusading Mr. Miller was further vindicated a couple of years later when he learned that a New Jersey paper company was supplying 263 leading hotels with sanitary paper finger bowls. “And so the finger bowl marches on,” he wrote, revealing a surprising dedication to its future.

But, for the most part, it was not to be. Glass, brass, or paper, all would be swept aside. World War I delivered the coup de grace when the Food Administration implored restaurants to do away with excess china, silver, and glassware, whether service plates, side dishes, salad forks, or finger bowls. The few straggler bowls that survived that era were wiped out by another such war order in 1943. Since then, high-end restaurants that serve food requiring a clean-up afterwards provide scented towels while lower-price establishments go with packaged towelettes.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

*Dip one hand at a time and then dry your fingers on the napkin in your lap. Ignoring a finger bowl is a safe course.


Filed under restaurant customs, restaurant etiquette

Etiquette violations: eating off your knife

While eating lunch at the Café Sabarsky in the Neue Galerie in New York last week what did I see but a well-dressed, “high-net-worth-individual” eating from her knife? She held a fork in her left hand and a knife in her right and delivered food to her mouth with both implements. She managed the operation unobtrusively and deftly, but still … I was amazed. I’ve read so many historical accounts by horrified witnesses of this behavior that I could not believe my eyes.

Foreign visitors before the Civil War were aghast to see American restaurant-goers convey food to their mouths with a knife and believed the habit was peculiar to the United States, which they regarded as a nation full of bumpkins. Some Americans retorted that it was not found solely in this country. They argued that the haughty visitors were accustomed to being sheltered by social class segregation in their own societies that prevented them from ever seeing their fellow countrymen who did this. Because the U.S. was more democratic, they said, all classes of people ended up eating together in the same restaurants and so a wide variety of eating customs were on display.

Evidently the habit was fairly common in the 1860s. Onlookers not familiar with this type of scene expressed nervousness that diners who appeared to be swallowing their knives might be in “imminent danger of ripping open their mouths from ear to ear.” That didn’t seem to happen but the mere idea was enough to put people with delicate sensibilities on edge.

In the 19th century eating off a knife was typically associated with cheap restaurants that had dirty tablecloths, uncouth waiters, and chipped dishes. Patrons at these places often exhibited other bad habits such as hunching over their plates. A Philadelphia restaurant keeper of the 1880s, hoping to attract better mannered patrons, went so far as to eject anyone who ate from a knife. He instructed waiters to tap the culprit on the shoulder and say that someone wanted to see them at the cashier’s desk near the door. The waiter then brought the person (usually a man) his coat and hat and asked him to leave. If he balked, a bouncer appeared.

No one reacted to the woman at the Café Sabarsky. Her companions seemed not to notice how she ate.

Up to last week I believed that eating from a knife had stopped back in the 19th century. Now I wonder: is the custom returning, or was it merely one person’s peculiar method of eating?

© Jan Whitaker, 2011


Filed under restaurant etiquette

Romantic dinners

No respectable person in the 19th century would have dreamed of even mentioning such a thing as a romantic dinner in a restaurant. The whole topic of “romance” and restaurants was scandalous. Basically it implied a man having sex – and maybe dinner – with a disreputable woman, probably a prostitute, in a private room in the basement or on an upper floor of a restaurant. For decades the term “French restaurant” was widely taken as a euphemism for a brothel, especially in San Francisco. There, at the start of the 20th century, the mayor and his legal counsel made thousands of dollars by shaking down restaurant owners engaged in this trade by having their liquor licenses withheld until they paid for “protection.”

The idea of private dining rooms was an explosive one. An expensive new French restaurant in New York City that wished to be patronized by best society in 1861 felt it necessary to run a special notice explaining its policy: “The Proprietor … fearing that the public has misunderstood that announcement in the papers of the opening of his house, begs leave to notify those who have already favored him with their patronage, and the public generally, that the PRIVATE ROOMS in his house are exclusively for families or dinner parties to order.” Meanwhile, to insure its reputation with society elites, particularly women, Delmonico’s banned even married couples from dining in its private rooms unless they were accompanied by others.

It seems that for a very long time in America’s history there was only one type of food purveyor that might be deemed acceptable for a romantic twosome, and that was not really a restaurant but a place that specialized in ice cream. In late-18th-century NYC this would be a pleasure garden, such as Vauxhall or Contoit’s, dotted with little vine-covered bowers with individual tables inside. There were also some bright and glittery mirrored cafes modeled on those in Paris that attracted young couples and were considered somewhat acceptable.

As late as the World War I era, when restaurants were becoming more respectable, a typical scene in today’s popular media featuring a man proposing to a woman in a restaurant would have been seen as improper. For one thing, it wasn’t really considered totally ok for an unmarried couple to have dinner unchaperoned in a restaurant until the later 1920s. In 1913 a waitress confessed that she was shocked to witness a man proposing marriage. She felt a strong negative reaction to the spectacle:“That was too much for me, and I made up my mind then that if any man ever asked me at the dinner table to marry him I would refuse him on the spot.”

Of course there were plenty of people who defied convention and went to restaurants two by two anyway, and there were restaurants that had romantic attractions such as strolling musicians in the early 20th century. Yet, it wasn’t until fairly recently that restaurants began to specifically and proudly advertise that they were the perfect spot for a romantic dinner. This began to occur in the 1960s, a decade in which more and more Americans went to restaurants in the evening for entertainment.

A popular restaurant in the college town of Columbia, Missouri, exemplified the new trend in the 1960s and the characteristics that would become regarded as romantic. Called the Mill O’Rock, it was in an old grist mill and had a circular stone fireplace in the center of the room with wooden ceiling beams radiating out from it. Young couples flocked there and the owner said it was well known as the perfect place for marriage proposals.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011


Filed under patrons, restaurant etiquette, women

Between courses: don’t sniff the food

Although most etiquette books seem to be directed at the female reader, S. A. Frost’s Laws and By-Laws of American Society published in 1869 appears to be aimed at men. Judging from the recommendations he makes below, there were some diners who sorely needed his advice if they didn’t want to be branded with “the certain mark of ill-breeding.”

In slightly abridged form, here are 10 big mistakes he identifies that you don’t want to make while at the table in a restaurant.


1. appear to question the quality or freshness of the viands by smelling or fastidiously tasting them.

2. [ever], even with cheese, put your knife into your mouth.

3. play with your knife and fork, fidget with your salt-cellar, balance your spoon on your tumbler, [or] make pills of your bread.

4. smack the lips when eating.

5. eat as if you had good fare for the first time in your life – that is to say, do not eat ravenously.

6. take the bones of fowl or birds up in your fingers to gnaw or suck on them.

7. wipe your finger tips, if soiled, upon your tongue or the table-cloth.

8. take a long, deep breath after you finish eating, as if the exercise had fatigued you.

9. suck your teeth, or pass your tongue round the outside of your gums.

10. illustrate your remarks by plans drawn upon the table-cloth with your nail, or butt of your knife, fork and spoon.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010


Filed under restaurant etiquette